A powerhouse performance from James McAvoy keeps Split from sinking – but only just.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
There was a point during the mid-noughties (roughly around the time that Lady in the Water sunk like a stone) that M Night Shyamalan’s less than favourable critical appraisals were something of a punchline. A series of duds that began with 2004’s The Village and ended with 2013’s After Earth certainly washed away any goodwill the world collectively felt towards Shyamalan for his impeccable work on 1999’s The Sixth Sense and 2000’s Unbreakable.
Since then, Shyamalan has retreated from the spotlight and returned to his forte; crafting grungy B-movie horror/thrillers that are dark, twisted and a little humorous. 2013’s The Visit showed promising signs; and his new movie Split continues this upward trajectory.
The movie concerns itself with Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers with dissociative identity disorder – or a split personality to you and me. Kevin has 23 distinct personalities rattling around inside his noggin, from flamboyant fashionista Barry and violent OCD sufferer Dennis to prim and proper Patricia and 9-year-old kid Hedwig. Dennis decides to abduct Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) and two of her classmates, locking them in an underground room where they are to await a grisly fate – being eaten by a mysterious entity only known as ‘The Beast’.
A solidly crafted psychological thriller, Split has at least one deadly arrow in its quiver in McAvoy. The Scottish actor brings menacing and nuanced emotion to the film, which allows the audience to distinguish between identities through something as small as a curled lip or head tilt.
McAvoy often has to switch personalities mid-conversation and on a couple of occasions in the same take; it might sound trivial but there is power in his ability to switch so effectively, darkening his brow when Dennis bubbles to the surface or summoning childlike innocence in Hedwig. It’s a committed role that requires a lot of physicality and he absolutely aces it.
Taylor-Joy is pretty good too, even if her character is too often forgotten about. Casey and her friends mainly just act as props for most of the movie, devoid of the urgency we saw in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character in 10 Cloverfield Lane or the emotion of Brie Larson’s in Room. Betty Buckley plays Dr Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s physiatrist, and her role is essentially to provide jargon that drives the plot forward – she might as well be called Dr Janet Exposition.
It’s also hard to ignore Split’s inherent flaw, which is that it uses mental illness as a byword for villainy. Granted, there is at least a vague attempt at framing Kevin as redeemable and Shyamalan does make an effort to comment on the lasting impacts of trauma and abuse – but it doesn’t resonate as strongly as it could have, sadly.
At the end of the day, Split will probably divide (or split, har har) opinions. It’s far from Shyamalan’s best work, but it does dish out some decent thrills and I wouldn’t dissuade fans of the director or genre from going to see it. Just strap yourself in for a good film plagued with problems (and a really dumb twist right at the end – but c’mon, it’s Shyamalan, what did you expect?)
Split is available in Australian cinemas from January 26
Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017